FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD SAVITRI WAS UNUSUALLY QUIET on her first visit home after her gauna—a traditional ceremony, common in Uttar Pradesh, marking a bride’s arrival at her in-laws’ house. “Everything is fine, didi,” she insisted when photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal asked about her withdrawn demeanour. “I was seeing this girl, who I had become fond of, change over time. Some part of her had died. And I was never able to see that part again,” Khandelwal, who knew Savitri well by this point, recounted.
For young girls in Shravasti, a district in Uttar Pradesh near the Nepal border, childhood is fleeting. They are married off early, shifting homes and families at ages as young as eight years old. Families plan in advance for the girls’ move to their husbands’ homes, but the shift from the parents’ home, ritualised by the gauna, sometimes occurs years after the wedding. The transition to the husband’s home is often fraught and girls are frequently left with a fragile sense of belonging. A photograph in Khandelwal’s work “Child brides of Shravasti” depicts the girls as three spectral shadows on the bare brick walls of a house. It gestures at the liminal space that the girls occupy in the deeply patriarchal society, as they are viewed as liabilities by both sets of families.
Uttar Pradesh has over two million child brides and Shravasti has a particularly high incidence of child marriage. The fertility rate in the district is among the highest in the country—on an average, a girl in Shravasti gives birth to five or six children in her lifetime. In December 2015, while visiting her hometown, Lucknow, Khandelwal made a detour and visited Shravasti to assess whether these statistics matched the reality on ground. She was surprised that the issue appeared more serious than reported, and began documenting child marriage and the social systems that enable it.
Child marriage was first diagnosed as a social evil in 1860, when the consummation of a marriage with a girl younger than ten years was declared to be rape. In 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act prohibited child marriage and placed restrictions on the solemnisation of such marriages. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 introduced further restrictions, including increasing the punishment terms for participating in or abetting a child marriage and allowing that an under-age marriage can be rendered void if either party involved asks for it to be annulled.
Khandelwal encountered young married girls who were living either with their husbands or parents. She found that there were only four reported cases of child marriage from Uttar Pradesh in 2016, in which none of the four accused were convicted. Khandelwal also observed a palpable disregard for laws relating to child marriage in Shravasti, with little or no fear of any legal repercussions.
Parents with whom she met provided different reasons for marrying their children off so young, the most common being that grooms’ families usually ask for higher dowries when girls are older. A 2017 report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights suggested that families prefer girls when they are still children. Another frequently mentioned reason was protection for the girls—families claimed that having a husband would ensure that their daughters do not receive unwanted attention. According to Khandelwal, the high crime rates in the state might have contributed to families’ anxieties about their children. For instance, she noticed many cases where husbands instructed their brides not to step out of the house alone, or at all, even before the gauna. In one of the villages that Khandelwal visited, girls are married off in their adolescence because of a prevailing fear that they may otherwise “get involved with men.” A mother, whose young daughter was recently married, told Khandelwal that she had also been married younger than the legal age. When asked why she would subject her daughter to the same experience, the mother explained that she worried about who would provide for her: “What if there are floods next year and we lose our house?”
Girls are not the only ones facing an abject loss of childhood. Boys are married off early as well: Uttar Pradesh alone has over 770,000 child bridegrooms. Khandelwal was clear about her choice to focus on the perspective of the girls, though. She believes that they have a longer history of struggle and that their lives do not necessarily improve after marriage. In many cases, married girls staying with their parents were taken in by the groom’s family only when they were needed to help with chores, a phenomenon Khandelwal described as a way of “getting house help through marriage and also being paid to do so.” Noting that expectations of love were often absent from such marriages, she recalled the case of Suba Bano and Firoj Ali, who were married when he was 17 and she was 16, because Firoj’s mother, who was terminally ill, wanted a woman in the house to replace her. At the time, Suba, Firoj, and his sister and parents lived in a one-room house. In an attempt to understand how their relationship worked, Saumya asked whether Firoj ever got Suba any gifts. She said he did, occasionally. When Saumya asked Firoj if Suba liked them, he said, “I don’t know. We don’t talk so much.” Khandelwal also found that the lack of economic opportunities in Shravasti forced many men to migrate to bigger cities to hunt for work and visit their homes only once or twice a year. Their relationships with their young wives, in several cases, were limited to these brief interactions.
A majority of the girls are married to older men, which further reduces their agency, and dissent is neither condoned nor encouraged. But Khandelwal recalled a rare incident where a young girl categorically refused to marry a boy, citing his dark complexion as the reason for her rejection. The girl said she wanted to, at the very least, meet the man before she married him. Neither her refusal nor her request to meet him was heeded, as her father had already consented to the marriage. “Girls will resign to their fate, not revolting, or sharing their anxieties, but just accepting that this is how life is meant to be,” Khandelwal reflected.